Rep. Doug Collins may be on the wrong side of history in his defense of President Trump, but he is right about one thing: The U.S. needs a workable immigration system if it wants to have continued economic growth.

Collins is something of an outlier among Republicans in that he isn't a rabid anti-immigrant mouthpiece for far-right nativist. Although the movement against immigrants began by focusing on efforts to stop illegal immigration, the Trump Administration is trying to curtail all immigration, both legal and illegal.

The reasons for that is political and driven by demographics. As immigration — legal and illegal — has diversified the nation's ethnic makeup, those nativist sentiments, once confided to the fringes of political discourse, have risen into the mainstream among Republicans.

Some of that is due to how conservative media outlets have ginned-up anti-immigrant rhetoric. Perhaps one of the most outspoken anti-immigrant voices on the right comes from Fox News commentator Laura Ingrham, who has not been shy in wanting to slam the door closed to all immigrants.

Her most famous quote in 2018: “In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love don’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”

What she's really saying is this: There are too many Asian and Hispanic people on the streets and white Americans don't like it. Close the door, keep America white.

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This bait-and-switch political move — speak against illegal immigration as the gateway to shut down all immigration — goes back to the early days of the Trump Administration and two of his key advisors: Steve Miller and Steve Bannon.

It was Bannon who engineered the Trump strategy to ramp up his anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric in 2016 in an effort to scare Americans about immigration. It was that rhetoric — much of it misleading and factually wrong — which eventually got Trump into the White House.

Bannon has since left the administration, but Miller has stayed. Behind the scenes, Miller has thrown wrenches into the nation's legal immigration system in an effort to slow it down and dismantle as much of it as possible. A lot of Trump's controversial anti-immigration plans have come from Miller, who has long been an anti-immigrant firebrand and white nativist.

 "Immigration" is really a shorthand term that encompasses a large number of legal immigrant categories. Legal immigrants include refugees, people who are fleeing persecution in their native countries; green card immigrants who come here to work; family-based immigrants who get permission to live and work in the U.S. because other family members are already here: the H-1B, H-2A and H-2B visa programs for specific workers; temporary protected status workers who have permission to live and work in the U.S. on a temporary basis; and there are several other kinds of immigrants as well, including the DACA program that protects those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

All of that has come under fire over the last three years as the Trump Administration has changed the rules of the legal immigration process. As a result, the backlog for legal immigration has grown as the gears have become gummed up.

•••

As Collins suggested in a speech last weekend to the local GOP faithful, the nation's immigration system is broken. But what Collins didn't say is that much of what's wrong with legal immigration today is because of Trump's policies that have been designed to break the system on purpose.

Still, Collins' call to allow more legal immigration is unusual among Republicans. That kind of thinking doesn't fly in some places, but here in the 9th District, a lot of industries depend on immigrant labor. Collins pointed to the need of the poultry industry for labor here, but the construction industry also needs more legal immigrant workers.

Most Americans probably agree with Collins that legal immigration is good for the U.S. economy, but such moderate views aren't in control today. Because Trump wants to play to his right-wing political base, he is unlikely to support any measure that would allow more legal immigrants into the country. 

Cynics might say that Collins is being a little disingenuous in his stand on immigration: If he really wanted to push for more legal immigration, he'd have to acknowledge that the Trump Administration has undermined it. He hasn't — and probably won't — do that given his greater loyalty to Trump.

Instead, he's called for more legal immigration to appease the local business community, but since he knows Trump won't support that movement, he doesn't really have to worry about crafting the details, or being seen as too pro-immigration to his far-right supporters. With Trump as president, legal immigration is dead in the water.

•••

All that political gamesmanship is not going to resolve the underlying problem, nor will Trump's anti-immigrant policies stop the nation from becoming increasingly diverse and multi-cultural. It may even have the perverse effect of increasing illegal immigration — if people can't get into the U.S. legally to work, then they will find illegal ways to get here.

Anyone who has done family history research knows there is no "pure" ethnic group or culture. We're all the result of thousands of years of multiple cultures overlapping and intermarrying. 

Those of us who claim to be from England, for example, are really from a variety of cultures and tribes that conquered and occupied the British Isles over thousands of years — Celts, Vikings, Romans, and many others.

There is no reason to think that this march of human history will suddenly stop. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants. While it was founded mostly by those descended from Western Europe, as time goes on, Hispanic, Asian, African and other non-European groups will assimilate into the country and the ethnic makeup will change. In 500 years, "Americans" will look very different than they do today.

Consider what's already happened.

In 1960, 87 percent of the U.S. population was white. Today, that is 63 percent and by 2050, it will be 47 percent. At the same time, the Hispanic, Black and Asian population will increase.

•••

But being an American isn't about your skin color, or your ethnic background.

Being an American is about believing in a shared set of values; about believing that men are not ruled by other men, but by the rule of law; about believing in justice for all; about believing in the freedom to practice the religion of your choice; about believing in the freedom to speak out in the political arena without the fear of violence.

With their focus on ethnic backgrounds and skin color, our political leaders have missed the main point in the immigration debate:

It's not where people come from that's important; it's what they believe when they get here that makes them an American.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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